Councilman Nickell ready to bow out
Chico councilman says he’s leaving ‘on a high note’
Tom Nickell has one City Council meeting left, on Dec. 7. That’s when he will officially step down after a single, four-year term as a councilman.
He was elected in 2006 to one of three open seats, coming in third behind incumbent Scott Gruendl and first-time candidate Mary Flynn. He barely edged out Mark Sorensen, who was elected this year on his third try.
During his term in office, Nickell earned the wrath of both the Chico Chamber of Commerce for his opposition to the expansion of Walmart and some local environmentalists for his support of the controversial disc-golf course in Upper Bidwell Park.
More recently, he gained approval from many for his efforts on behalf of allowing backyard chicken coops.
In July the silver-haired former California Highway Patrolman decided not to run for re-election. The reasons, he said, were tied to both health and family concerns, including his father’s recent death.
This summer he took a job as a legal assistant for a local attorney.
“It got to the point where this other career came up, and I sat there and I said, ‘You know what? After 28 years with the Highway Patrol and then four years on the council, I have to take care of myself.’ ”
He said he’s been suffering from high blood pressure, possibly related to stress from his work as a councilman.
Nickell, 54, is the son of a former University of Southern California vice president and holds a master’s degree in psychology from USC.
Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, he joined the California Highway Patrol in 1983 and 12 years later transferred to Chico. He had plans to get a teaching credential, but instead stayed on with the local CHP until he retired in 2005. At about the same time he went through a number of surgical procedures that were the result of injuries from on-the-job accidents, including getting rear-ended by a drunken driver while driving another suspected drunken driver to Enloe Medical Center for a blood test.
Nickell said he originally ran for council because of things he saw while working as a Highway Patrol officer, including houses built within the viewshed of Upper Bidwell Park, increasing traffic congestion, crime rates and gang activity.
“When I came up here from L.A., I started working with [former] police Chief Jim Massie on gang stuff, traffic issues and so forth. We identified certain gangs, and we took it upon ourselves to look into their activity. But I was told early on that we were not to use the ‘gang’ word because we didn’t have gangs in Chico. That was back in ’95.”
In 2005, after talking with some friends, he applied for a seat on the city Planning Commission. Before becoming a CHP officer, Nickell had worked as a project manager in the housing industry in the Palm Springs area. When the housing market slumped, he took a job with the CHP.
“Everyone apparently thought I was just a dumb-ass CHP officer,” he said. “The only person on the council who voted for me was Maureen Kirk.”
Then someone suggested he run for council, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“No one really knew me in this town. They thought I was a hardcore conservative because I was with the CHP. But I wasn’t raised that way.”
Serving as a council member, he said, is demanding and time-consuming.
“The meetings are the first and third Tuesdays of each month, and we get our binders of staff reports either on the Thursday or Friday before. So we have the weekend to study up. Remember, most of the council members have full-time jobs. We had 1,600 pages of Walmart reports to read in three days. How do you take the data and go through it and properly digest it? We don’t have enough time.”
He said his late father greatly influenced his demeanor as a councilman.
“He told me the three things: Treat everybody with respect when they come up before you no matter what they say to you; remember the people who voted for you; and always wear a tie.
“In the last three months I’ve broken one of his rules. I haven’t worn a tie to the meetings.”
Nickell is not ruling out another dive into politics. Without going into detail, he said he may run for office again in two years. In the meantime he’s satisfied with what he did on the council.
“I think I’m leaving on a high note, I feel good.”